By Beth Dodd:
One of the most interesting things about Colorado history is discovering the bold individuals who explored and settled the land, travelling far from home at great risk when the west was truly wild. One such early adventurer was George F. Ruxton. Definitely a member of the live-hard-die-young crowd, Ruxton wrote about his travels around the world and was one of the first people to write extensively about the mountain men in the American West.
Ruxton was born in Kent, England in 1821, but he did not stay there for long. He wrote of himself, “I was a vagabond in all my propensities. Everything quiet or commonplace I detested and my spirit chafed within me to see the world and participate in scenes of novelty and danger.”
Ruxton left England for Spain in 1836 when he was only 15 years old after being expelled from the Royal Military Academy at Sand Hurst. There was a civil war being fought in Spain at that time, and young Ruxton enlisted in a British regiment fighting for Queen Isabella II. He became a lancer under Diego de León and received the Laureate Cross of Saint Ferdinand from the queen for his gallantry at Belascoáin.
When he was 17 Ruxton returned to England, but soon left looking for adventure again. He served in Ireland and then in Canada as a British soldier. He was intrigued by the lives of the natives and the mountain men in Canada, and sold his Lieutenant commission in the British Army so he could stay there. He became a hunter and travelled with a Chippewa friend, Peshwego.
When he’d had enough of Canada, Ruxton made another short visit home to England. Then he was off on the first of two trips to explore central Africa. He was working with the Royal Geographical Society trying to correct some mistakes on the maps of the time. He was unable gather the resources to explore as he wished and returned to England. He wrote a paper about African bushmen and presented it before the Ethnological Society of London in 1845.
By 1846 Ruxton was off vagabonding again. This time he sailed to Veracruz, Mexico to observe the Mexican–American War. From there, he traveled north to Santa Fe and on to Bent’s Fort in the future Colorado. He journeyed through the San Luis Valley and up the Arkansas River into South Park. He generally travelled alone, but enjoyed meeting and spending time with the mountain men and trappers he met along the way. He also met the native inhabitants of the area, the Utes and Arapahoes.
In the winter of 1846-47, Ruxton visited what would one day become Manitou Springs where Ruxton Creek and Ruxton Ave now bear his name. He camped there for several weeks, hunting antelope, buffalo, and other local game. He wanted to climb Pikes Peak, but was unable to do it because of poor weather. From January through May 1847 he hunted along the Front Range, visited with mountain men, and endured an extremely cold winter with only his horse and mules for company. Other places he visited included Ute Pass, Woodland Park, Florissant, and Lake George.
At the time of Ruxton’s visit to Manitou, the area was still part of Mexico. It would be ceded to the United States the next year at the end of the Mexican-American War in February 1848. Ute Pass was still an Indian trail and the mineral springs in Manitou were often visited by the Ute people. Ruxton wrote, “The spring was filled with beads and wampum, and pieces of red cloth and knives, whilst the surrounding trees were hung with strips of deerskin, cloth and moccasins.” The people left these offerings in hopes of good health and good hunting, and for good luck in winning battles with the plains tribes.
Ruxton returned to England for the last time in the spring of 1847. By 1848 his health was declining. He had suffered a fall during his time in Colorado, resulting in a spinal injury that had never fully healed and caused him considerable pain. Even so, he still had the desire to “see the world and participate in scenes of novelty and danger.” He returned to America intending to visit the Great Salt Lake, but only made it as far as St. Louis. Ruxton fell ill during a dysentery epidemic there and died on August 29, 1848. He was 27 years old.
During his short life Ruxton wrote extensively about his many travels and published a number of magazine articles and books. His titles include Life in the Old West, Ruxton of the Rockies, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, and many other works of autobiography and fiction.
He had a lot to write about. Not counting his adventures in Canada, and Africa, Ruxton had journeyed a total of 3,000 miles by horse or foot from Vera Cruz, Mexico to Manitou Springs, Colorado. Along the way he met many historical figures such as General Antonio López de Santa Anna, Charles Bent, and others. His detailed first person accounts of the early American West and its people are invaluable to historians today. He commented on Mexican, Indian and American culture during the period of American expansion into the west. He observed the Mexican-American War, and shared his thoughts on the issue of slavery. Ruxton’s tales are also exciting to read. He was caught in a wildfire started by the Indians, nearly died in a snowstorm, had many other near-death experiences.
Of his time in Colorado, Ruxton wrote, “I must confess that the very happiest moments of my life have been spent in the wilderness of the Far West; and I never recall, but with pleasure, the remembrance of my solitary camp in the Bayou Salade (South Park) , with no friend near me more faithful than my rifle, and no companions more sociable than my good horse and mules, or the attendant cayute (coyote) which nightly serenaded us.”